Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland

On a bitter winter night in west Belfast in December 1972, the IRA came for Jean McConville. Surrounded by most of her 10 children, the widowed McConville was bundled out of her apartment by masked men and women, accompanied by a few neighbors who wore no disguise. Her body would be found more than three decades later, buried on a desolate beach in the Republic of Ireland.

In the interim, her children were scattered to institutions and to their fates as orphans. In Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland (2019), New Yorker writer Patrick Radden Keefe follows the long trail of the McConville disappearance, which he sees as a key to understanding “the Troubles” and the uneasy peace following the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. In trying to unravel the mystery of the McConville disappearance, Keefe also describes the unlikely but pivotal role played by the American legal system.

1972 was perhaps the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, which traced its roots to a centuries’ old struggle for Irish independence and to the partition of Ireland into a predominantly Catholic Republic of Ireland in the south and a British territory of Northern Ireland for the six majority-Protestant counties in the North. Spurred by demagogues and sectarian hatreds on both sides, a period of violent ethnic cleansing in Belfast and Derry led to a resurgence of the Irish Republican Army in 1969. This IRA included a new faction, the Provisional IRA or “Provos,” who were younger, more radical, and more committed to violence as a means to independence. Keefe focuses his narrative on three icons of the Republican movement: Dolours Price, Brendan Hughes, and Gerry Adams — later head of the Sinn Fein Republican political party.

Dolours Price, along with her sister Marian, came from a family legendary for its stalwart Republican heroes, including her aunt Bridie, blinded in an IRA bomb blast. After unsuccessful efforts to secure change for Northern Catholics through the Irish Civil Rights Movement of the late 1960’s, the Price sisters joined the Provos. Photogenic, radical,and fearless, they became well known to law enforcement and to the British Army and intelligence services. In March 1973, the Price sisters were part of an IRA squad who placed bombs in London, including one at the Old Bailey criminal courts. Arrested as they tried to flee back to Belfast, the Price sisters and their allies were tried and convicted. When the sisters were near death from a hunger strike in a British prison, the British government relented and returned them to Ireland to finish their sentences at the Armagh jail, where they were welcomed as heroines of the cause. While there, however, Dolours Price would become disillusioned with the IRA and would suffer from eating and psychological disorders that would plague her for the rest of her life.

Brendan “Darkie” Hughes was one of the legends of the IRA’s Belfast Brigade, serving as its Operations Officer and playing a role in the “Bloody Friday” bombings in Belfast. Arrested and interned at the notorious Long Kesh prison, Hughes joined the original IRA hunger strikes, which were deemed a tactical failure when broken without concessions in order to save lives. In 1981, Bobby Sands and nine other IRA prisoners would die in a second round of hunger strikes, which were deemed a political success that made it possible for Sinn Fein to enter government in the UK and the Republic of Ireland. Hughes later escaped prison and returned to his military role in Belfast, only to be recaptured and imprisoned yet again. Like Price, he would later grow disillusioned with the peace of 1998 and spend his last years lost in bitterness and regret.

The most ambivalent of the three central characters is Adams, who has steadfastly denied ever being a member of the IRA — yet has been identified by many others as the officer in command of the Belfast Brigade. As Hughes put it, “even the dogs” in Belfast knew Adams was in the IRA. Imprisoned with Hughes at Long Kesh, Adams turned to politics and — eventually — away from open support for violence. Many of his former colleagues contend that he continued to send Provos to kill and to die on missions, only to be subsequently disavowed by Sinn Fein and Adams. When Adams helped to secure the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, many of his old Provo colleagues, including Price and Hughes, felt that he had betrayed them by promoting IRA disarmament and accepting a settlement short of independence for the North.

The Jean McConville case might have remained a mystery if not for the Easter Accords. As part of that process, both sides were encouraged to provide information on missing and “disappeared” persons, often those suspected of being informants or “touts” for the British. When Troubles researcher Ed Moloney partnered with Boston College to create and host a collection of confidential interviews with former combatants for both sides — who were promised that the interviews would remain sealed until after their death — -the fuse was lit for a bitter fight over evidence related to the disappearance.

Following the release of a book by Moloney in 2010 based in part on his interviews with the by-then deceased Hughes, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) issued a treaty request, which resulted in a subpoena to Boston College for its interviews related to the McConville case. In his, Hughes had indicated that Adams had ordered the execution of McConville as a British informer and had debated IRA officer Ivor Bell on whether to leave her body in the street as a public warning to others (the customary disposition) or to hide it to avoid adverse publicity for killing a widowed mother of ten. According to Hughes, Adams won and the body was disappeared.

Protracted litigation followed in Massachusetts and the First Circuit. See, e.g., In re Request from the United Kingdom, 718 F.3d 13 (1st Cir. 2013); In re Dolours Price, 685 F.3d 1 (1st Cir. 2012). Eventually, BC turned over numerous recordings and transcripts related to the McConville case. Ivor Bell was charged as an accomplice to her murder but never stood trial due to dementia. Adams was brought in for questioning in a highly-publicized incident in 2014 but was never charged. He continued to deny knowledge of the case, or that he had ever been a member of the still-illegal IRA. In the interim, the remains were located in 2003 and returned to her surviving children for a funeral in the same west Belfast neighborhood from which she was abducted, with her coffin carried past what remains of the bleak Divis Flats housing project from which she was taken.

Working through several interviews with Price, Keefe concludes that she was one of a three-member squad from the Provos’ special “Unknowns” unit who transported McConville to her final interrogation and, later, helped to execute her. While no conclusive evidence exists, he makes a strong case for the likely identity of her killers. The evidence of whether McConville was, in fact, an informant for the British remains ambivalent. Her children insist that she was nothing more than a widowed mother of 10, struggling with depression and trying to raise her children alone in a war zone. They believe that she was falsely accused because of her aid to a wounded British soldier, although that incident also remains oblique.

With its focus on multiple figures over almost 50 years, Say Nothing can sometimes leave the general reader at sea. In addition, the intricacies of Irish and English politics can be daunting for an American. Nevertheless, Keefe’s prose is always clear and often striking. His narrative raises important issues of loyalty, commitment, and the efficacy of violence as a political tool. Above all, he shows the human cost of such violence to all concerned, whether victims, survivors, or perpetrators. Did Adams sell out his cause and comrades for personal power and glory? Or did he take courageous and necessary steps to end pointless suffering? On these and other enduring questions of the Troubles, Say Nothing has much to tell us.

GARY C. SHOCKLEY is a shareholder with Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz PC in Nashville and a graduate of the University of Tennessee College of Law.

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